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The Daily Beast: "Downton Abbey: How PBS Got Cool" (Again)

At The Daily Beast, my colleague Maria Elena Fernandez and I examine how PBS got cool: the massive success of Downton Abbey has brought PBS an increase in donations, funding for Masterpiece, a boost in ratings for other programs, and an unlikely place in the zeitgeist. (Plus, RuPaul on Downton's appeal.)

You can read my latest feature, entitled "Downton Abbey: How PBS Got Cool," in which Fernandez and I talk to Rebecca Eaton, RuPaul, PBS SoCal, WNET, and PBS executives, and The Soup producer Matthew Carney, among others.

Patton Oswalt obsessively live tweets it from his weekly viewing parties. Katy Perry is using it to distract herself from her marital woes. Roger Ebert has stepped outside the movie realm to praise it in his blog. Saturday Night Live spoofed it. Mob Wives star Big Ang Raiola recited favorite quips for Us Weekly. The Onion equated watching one episode with reading a book. And Wednesday night The Soup will celebrate it with a special parody starring RuPaul and drag queens Raven and Shangela.

Could all of this fuss really be about a PBS show? Quite right. Masterpiece's Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning hit, Downton Abbey, created by Julian Fellowes, a TV ratings success and cultural phenomenon, has catapulted the public-television broadcaster with the stodgy reputation to the cool kids' table.

“We don’t know how to handle that over here,” said Mel Rogers, CEO and president of PBS SoCal, the PBS member station that serves greater Los Angeles. "We got accidentally popular.”

Continue reading at The Daily Beast...


CrazyCris said…
Interesting post... but all this makes it sound as if PBS is responsible for Downton, isn't it a BBC show??? It's also very popular here in Spain where I live, and the local channel isn't claiming it as theirs!
Jace Lacob said…
A few errors in your comment:

(1) It is not a BBC show, but airs in the UK on ITV.
(2) It is a co-production and co-financed by ITV in the UK and WGBH/Masterpiece. WGBH is the local PBS member station for Boston.

PBS and ITV can both share in the success of Downton and PBS not only contributed to its production and development but also can reap the rewards.
CrazyCris said…
Ahhhhh, thanks for correcting me! I'm afraid I tend to assume most of the excellent British productions I see are BBC, I'm not really aware of their other channels. Here in Spain there was no mention of the specific origin, we just knew it was a UK production.

If it was produced by both, why do they air the show in the US so much later than in the UK? Aren't they worried about losing audiences via online viewing/downloading issues?

In any case, hat's off to all of those involved with this project!
Jace Lacob said…
It airs on Masterpiece, which airs three programming cycles: Classic in Winter/Spring; Mystery in Summer; and Contemporary in Autumn. Downton airs as part of Masterpiece Classic, so has to air in January regardless of the UK broadcasting pattern. Likewise, the median age of PBS viewers is 62, so there is not much tendency for piracy for that age group. Add to that the fact that S2, which aired months after the UK airings, doubled in audience and continued to grow throughout S2, proving that the delay didn't hurt their ratings in the least.
Craig Ranapia said…
"If it was produced by both, why do they air the show in the US so much later than in the UK? Aren't they worried about losing audiences via online viewing/downloading issues?"

I'm obviously not privy to the precise nature of the co-production agreement, but I can't see why ITV would have any issues with a Doctor Who-like arrangement where PBS screens Downton days (or hours) after UK transmission. As Jace pointed out, the various Masterpiece strands have a fixed spot in the schedule; if American audiences with multi-zone DVD players felt that strongly about it, there's nothing stopping them from ordering legit UK discs from British on-line stores. (Down here in New Zealand, Downton Abbey has been hitting stores quite literally the day after the finales of both series.)

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